Story and Photos By Evelyn Sutton
You’ll recognize her as Jiujiteira’s beauty editor, writer of the popular column, Beauty is a Beast. Vhilena Nelson is indeed a beautiful Jiu-Jitsu beast. Her warm smile reflects her natural ability to easily connect with people. Vhilena is one of the most generous, gracious and empowering women I know, I’m blessed to call her a friend. Always ready to give a fellow Jiujiteira much needed words of encouragement, she instinctively knows exactly what to say, it’s no surprise she’s a great writer. A professional hairdresser and make up artist, Vhilena applies her skills to help women feel confident, strong, beautiful and feminine in the male dominant world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
JM: Tell us about yourself. How old are you? Where were you born?
VN: Hello!! My name is Vhilena May Nelson. I am a wife, a college student who is attending Keiser University, a business owner, and I am the proud mother of a 13 year old boy. I am 39 years of age, born October 14th, 1982 in Haverhill Massachusetts.
JM: Have you trained in martial arts before and what attracted you to BJJ? How was your very first BJJ class?
VN: Prior to training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I had never done any kind of martial arts before. I was always in sports growing up. I played soccer, softball, and did gymnastics year round since I was 6 years old. I was always very competitive and excelled in gymnastics making it to the junior olympics when I was 15 ½. Sports were activities I identified with as a way to interact in a social setting but also I really enjoyed the team aspect and being part of something bigger than myself.
When I came across BJJ it was a very dark time in my life. I felt I had lost myself in a fairly toxic relationship. I was in a marriage I knew was coming to an end due to drug and alcohol abuse. My heart was being ripped out of my chest and I was emotionally spiralling in a downward descent. At the time I was part of a 24 hour gym located in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The gym was located on the bottom of a two story building. Often when I finished my workout I would see people walking up the stairs to the second floor. Some would be carrying a uniform which I now know is called a gi. Call it the universe or divine intervention, but one day I felt compelled to follow to find out what was up those stairs. I walked up the stairs and through the door into Cocoa Beach Fight Club. A small yet inviting space with mats on the floor. I hung out and watched as the practitioners drilled and rolled. I informed the owners I would be back soon. Two weeks later I arrived. After one class I was hooked, I knew I had found something that resonated with my soul.
Something released within me and I was able to not only focus, but during the time I was there my only thoughts were of Jiu-Jitsu. I could forget about what was happening outside of BJJ. I felt myself becoming mentally and physically stronger daily which made me want to be there as often as I could.
JM: What impact Jiu-Jitsu made in your life?
VN: Jiu-Jitsu has impacted my life in many positive ways. The sport has given me inner strength to overcome lifelong struggles and given me a confidence that is immeasurable. Prior to Jiu-Jitsu I was very passive and throughout my life found myself in abusive and toxic relationships. I did not see my value or believe I was worthy of love. When I began to train, especially roll, I would become overwhelmed with emotion and have serious panic attacks. My coaches would push me to work through the tears even when I was hyperventilating. It was as if my body was rejecting every negative thought I had ever told myself. As a woman, having people who support you when you’re falling apart and in a dark place is what gave me the power to take back my life. I stood up for myself and my son and left a situation even when it broke my heart. I think BJJ opened my eyes to my true potential. I knew I had endured a lot in my life but had suppressed most of it. BJJ forced me to face hard stuff head on. Physically I was always a beast, but emotionally I was harboring one. When that inner beast emerged the realization I was unstoppable created an unshakeable foundation.
“…BJJ opened my eyes to my true potential.”
JM: How long have you been training? Do you prefer gi or nogi?
VN: I began training in 2016. While I do like gi, I really enjoy nogi. I like being able to move freely without the added weight of the gi. I also like that the rash guard allow for gliding and sliding against your opponent’s body with less resistance.
JM: Favorite position and favorite submission?
VN: I would say my favorite position is side control. I enjoy being able to use my body weight to apply pressure. I know when I distribute myself just right it is extremely uncomfortable for my opponent. I feel I am able to achieve better positions from side control because my side control is strong. My favorite submission is without a doubt the kimura.
JM: What things do you find hard in training?
VN: What I find hard in training is matching a partner with my aggression who can also maintain control. When the adrenaline begins to flow through the veins I feel some people are unaware of their own strength. I also find when I am training with much smaller people I worry about hurting my partner. I know I am very dense and strong. I have to constantly remain aware of the amount of force used to avoid causing them injury.
JM: And what do you find comes natural to you?
VN: What I find easy and comes naturally to me is my ability to be supportive and a good team player. I enjoy helping others stay positive and motivated to achieve their goals. It comes naturally to me to be a social butterfly and introduce new members in order for them to feel at ease and part of our Jiu-Jitsu family.
JM: You are a great supporter of women’s Jiu-Jitsu! And that includes your column Beauty is a Beast. What is your favorite thing about being the beauty and health editor of Jiujiteira Magazine?
VN: My favorite aspect of being the beauty and health editor of Jiujiteira is the ability to write creatively. I have always really enjoyed writing. It allows me to write on things I think about and want to share. My mission is for women to be happy and healthy in the skin they are in, whatever that looks like. I hope I am able to empower more women to feel good about themselves on a daily basis.
JM: What do you consider the greatest challenges for women in Jiu-Jitsu?
VN: I think the greatest challenge for women in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is to be seen as equal to male practitioners. In my experience women do not advance as quickly as men in the sport. For every 20-25 men that are promoted 1 woman might be promoted. Often our effort is based on aggression or when we are able to attend weekly, not really considering that many of the women are also mothers. This means having to be home to feed and get children ready for bed during the typical time of an evening class. I think women are not recognized in the sport to the same capacity as men. I have personally witnessed men who start the sport go from white to blue belt in less than a year, and also witnessed women remain a white belt for 2 to 3 years. While I don’t believe being promoted or receiving stripes on your belt should be your primary focus or only motivation for doing this sport, I have known women to feel slighted or discouraged because they felt their efforts were not recognized to the same level as the men. I will say this, even in the 6 years I have been doing BJJ I have watched it grow from a primarily male dominated sport to having more and more women joining. I think that will make it harder to ignore the talent females have on the mats as more women join and balance the playing field.
JM: Do you have any female BJJ role models you look up to?
VN: Not to sound corny, but my female BJJ role models are each one of the women on our Jiu-Jitsu team. It takes courage to step foot on the mats. Many of us have never done a sport which involved contact in such an intimate way. Our girls are brave and helping to continue to pave the way for more women in Jiu-Jitsu. I appreciate each one of the women on our team. Each brings something unique and I am grateful to every one of them for their participation and role.
JM: What is your advice for women who might be struggling in BJJ and even considering quitting?
VN: My advice for women who struggle in their BJJ training is to set goals for yourself. It can be attendance, a submission, or a position goal. The goal should be achievable and small. Each time you meet your goal reward yourself in a small way. When it comes to BJJ, I focus on personal growth rather than the recognition of others. When you work hard to accomplish a goal for yourself it is more meaningful. Many people can be stubborn and won’t ask for help. If you’re thinking about quitting ask yourself if it is something you could overcome with support. I think it’s important to remember we are a team and to recognize we are here to serve as a support system to one another as well.
JM: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?
VN: I originally moved to Florida after being hired by The Walt Disney Program to be Snow White 2003-2004. Shortly after I started at Disney an opportunity to audition for an all girl group was presented and I was signed by Florida record producer Lou Pealman. We began recording and were going to be an opener for Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock. Sadly,six months into recording Lou Pearlman was arrested for embezzlement and everything fell apart. That was the closest I came to the dream of performing on that scale.
JM: What lesson from Jiu-Jitsu you apply to your life?
VN: A lot of how I cope with stress and situations directly correlates to BJJ. I find when you are having a bad day, depressed, or stressed those are the days you should definitely attend class. I always leave feeling better after training. BJJ allows for a healthy way to manage life challenges. I feel the structure and discipline from BJJ is also something that echoes off the mats. I am the same person regardless of my environment and take pride in that. BJJ has made me stronger in every aspect. This sport helped me overcome my soul’s wounds. When you feel like a whole person it is easier to meet your full potential to be your best self. When you are in a good place mentally, physically, and emotionally you are able to serve others more positively.
Our printed magazine is full of extraordinary women with extraordinary stories, get your printed copy via mail today >